Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Building Authentic Culture and Connection

"As I listen to my students passionately reveal their rich ethnic and cultural traditions, I  fill with hope for the future of our great nation. Clearly they are eager to embrace the diversity that permeates the culture within our classroom community.  With each question that is posed and each articulate response that is provided, it is obvious that there is an open desire to learn more about the culture of their classmates and families."

Yet another school year has begun and with it the opportunity has arrived to build relationships with our new students and their families. Once again building a positive culture within our classroom community becomes an early year priority. After spending time with "getting to know you activities" during the first few days, the time arrived to begin introducing some content.  This year the early focus is on the Eight Strands of Social Studies and the manner in which they connect to the lives of our students. A great chance is made available to use two of the strands to make authentic connections, build classroom culture, empower students to make choices and to utilize their student voices.

History and Culture were the two strands which were introduced and examined at length early on. Real life connections were established and then an authentic assignment was given that required the students to learn more about their own personal lives. In past years students have always created "culture boxes", in which they have gone home, selected items relevant to their culture, placed them in a box or container, brought them in and then presented them to their peers. Always a great learning experience occurred, as we strengthened our connection with our culture and with each other.  This year we decided to add a new twist.

This year we added a family history component.  Students were asked to go home and find out three interesting facts about their family history, write them down on an index card and then bring them in ready to present along with their "culture boxes".   The result was inspiring.  Our 6th grade students went home and engaged their parents and relatives in conversations, learning fascinating things about their families that were previously unknown. (Thus strengthening family bonds) When it was time to come to school and present, there was buzz of enthusiasm in the classroom as students began to share their family history and culture. The endless smiles on the face of each student was a consistent reminder of the pride and passion that they felt for their families history and culture. One student after another shared an amazing accomplishment or a touching anecdote that was unique to their family.  We also learned more about the diversity that exists within our very own classroom community.  Discussions of religious customs and other cultural traditions captivated the attention of our community over the course of the two days of presentations.  The more that our students learned about each other, the more they wanted to learn. We were really was sad to see the activity come to end. Then something special happened.

We asked the students to write down one or two take aways from the experience and received the following responses. " I found out interesting things about my family that I never knew before." "I found our interesting things about people in my class."  I feel like I know my classmates a little bit better now." " I learned about people in my group so when I work with them now it will be easier."  My students, upon reflection were sharing that they understood the value of the activity an at the same time showing appreciation for the opportunity to engage in it.   Stepping back and listening to their feedback it felt gratifying that we were all able to experience this together so early in the year.  I genuinely believe that we strengthened our relationships and the culture within our classroom community.

I thanked them for their courage in sharing so much of themselves with their teachers and their peers, and left them with this thought.  "You all have such amazing families and interesting cultures, and you are leaving a footprint already on both your families history and culture. One day you will have a family with your own children and perhaps they will engage in an activity just like this, discussing all of the amazing things that you have done in your life." I cant imagine a more powerful idea for them to contemplate, as we wrapped up the activity.

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